A Catalyst for Supply Chain Profitability

May You Live In Interesting Times

a revisited,and slightly revised commentary from the winter of 2014... seems my predictions on driver shortage are coming to roost in wage increases. 

May you live in interesting times" is an English expression purporting to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse.” - Wikipedia

As another year ends and a new one crests the horizon, it is an opportunity to reflect on what was, what is, and what may be. For me the road ahead is shorter than the road in the mirror.

Some of my earliest memories are of trips in the back seat of the Chevy Nova II wagon, looking up as we passed the tractor trailers, doing the bent elbow, pull-the-air-horn sign to the drivers as we pulled parallel to the window. A gratifyingly large number of drivers obliged my request. I suspect that my parents may not have shared my glee as the blast of the horn rattled the open windows in the days before AC. These same knights of the highway could be counted on to stop and help out a stranded motorist, to help change a tire, or generally display courtesy on the roadway.  By the time I found myself behind the wheel of a rig a decade and a half or so later, the Ford LTL 9000 was the hottest thing on the new truck market, and the Kenworth “Aardvark” was still a few years in the future. The initial air ride cabs did some pretty funky stuff in the corners, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be running one of the many COEs in service.  I bet I could count on one hand (well, OK, maybe 2) how many requests I got for the air horn.  The kids smiled back, much as I did in my days.  It wasn’t often that schedules permitted stopping to lend a hand to a stranded motorist, although certain circumstances trumped schedules – a desolate location, or in the darkness of the night on a lonely stretch of road before cell phones had reached the general public, let alone became ubiquitous.  And of course, the ones we don’t like to see - severity always demands immediate response.

I never thought of transportation as a career. It just helped pay the bills while I went to university.  My AZ license slid into my wallet as the days of “regulation” were approaching their end.  It was earned through 6 week course with professional drivers and in class time, and then followed by a mentorship with my employer.  The company I was driving for was one of a very few companies to get an operating authority to operate extra-  and intra- provincially in over 20 years in Ontario. Public Need and Necessity was a nearly impossible bridge to cross. For us it was over $50,000 (1980 era dollars, that is, almost 120,000 in 2014 bucks), some slightly grey operating practices and some shrewd public relations moves, combined with lawyers and a couple visits to the courts, that made it happen.   I remember looking in the help wanted section of the newspapers back then; companies were advertising highway positions for between $0.28 and $0.32 per mile. That’s $0.65 - $0.75 per mile in 2014 bucks.  Operating as an independent mover, within a pretty confined area of SW Ontario, we made enough on the headhaul to pay our expenses and come back empty and still put some money away.  Hans Jons was giving talks on compliance and road side inspections, and telling stories about his entry into the MTO, when the old hands at the scale house would send him from Putnam to chase down a truck and tell the driver he needed to put air in the fifth wheel.

I opened my own business the year deregulation was born. Cost to get my operating authority – if I remember correctly, about $250.00. About 2 years into it a fellow from the MTO showed up one day to do a facility audit on my three truck fleet. Apparently one of my drivers had been pulled over in Sudbury and didn’t know what his operating authorities were. The nice fellow in the khaki green suit looked through my records for a few hours, and gave me a yellow piece of paper when he was done telling me what I wasn’t in compliance with and needed to change. The operating authorities and records were good. He suggested I reach out to the Transportation Health and Safety Association for guidance on how to bring things up to snuff, shook my hand, and left.  

A lot of rubber has run the roads since then. I don’t think I have seen a “do-the air horn sign” in years, but then, I don’t drive anymore either. My son doesn’t do the sign either – but on the other hand, at three years of age, he could identify every make of truck by its grill at a mile – and did so frequently to the astonishment of our passengers.  Nowadays, if a truck stops to help a stranded motorist, he or she is often celebrated as a hero. They are. It’s a shame it’s newsworthy as opposed to commonplace courtesy.  I don’t believe anyone with an understanding of our arena would call our industry “deregulated”. And those Reg books....well, they just keep on growing and multiplying.  The audits I experienced just 5 or 6 years after my first bore more resemblance to a criminal investigation than a confirmation of compliance. When he left, he gave me a satisfactory rating, a list a citations and a court date.  The financial costs and penalties incurred to respond to this essentially precluded further improvement for a 12 month period.   And as for the interactions, well, he wouldn’t accept a cup of coffee because it might be seen as attempting to influence the outcome? He wore a bullet proof vest the whole time?   Civil servant ?

As the economy fell off a cliff in 2008 -2010 I thought to myself:  how many of our skilled work force will want to come back when the taps turn back on and they have got used to living a regular life?  Who will replace them, given the conditions we have to offer now?  The environment which has fostered the real reduction in wages, which has created the self-serving jackals of the legal industry feeding on those unfortunate enough to be involved in a collision in the US, which has demonised a sector of honest hard working individuals for the sake of a headline, is itself on a crash course for a rude awakening.

Over the years I have managed a driver or two, even a few who were old enough they could have hit the air-horn for me all those years ago. As I guide them through the reams of paper, rules, regulations, and requirements they need to know now to drive, I see confusion and disenchantment so often. So many entered the field because it was a decent living for a hard working person who didn’t enjoy school or direct supervision – and now they do paperwork every day and get corrections handed back when they make a simple math error on a log or trip sheet.  I make it my goal to find a way to make sense of it all for them, and let them do what they do well. If along the way they learn the things they need to know now, I take that as an indication of their professionalism. Almost all do. It just takes longer for some. Maybe they have some negative experiences they need to overcome. Maybe they need to watch me walk the talk first. I’m good with that, after all, that’s how I decide who to believe, to follow, to support.

Looking through the windshield, I see some changes coming as surely as the landslide after a 3 foot snow storm in The Rockies.  I suspect “Driver Trainer” will be a position whose prominence will increase in the job boards.  I think someone with the right skills and business prowess will be able to become very wealthy by starting their own driver mentoring business – and I mean on the job, real time mentoring for days at a time in the truck with a new crop of freight relocation engineers, as one of my early employees referred to himself in jest.

But back to our eyes on the prize: as safety professionals we need to find what motivates our staff to get the best results for both of us. Honesty, ethics, and fairness are an unbeatable combination.   People will follow without being asked, where you cannot push them with every tool in your arsenal, if they understand and are appreciated. Instill a sense of pride in the person, give them the tools and schedules they need to do a professional, top level job, and the results are manifold. Slowly, without any direction needed, they will display behaviours and results we can only dream of from other methods of training and direction. Your metrics will improve; your morale with improve, your dialogue will be established, your CVOR will improve, your operating costs will plummet. 

As an industry we need to attract a new labour base. Negative reinforcement as a way of improving performance will hopefully, finally be recognised for what it is, and fall out of favour.  Finding our new freight relocation engineers will require a change at every touch point; from recruiting, to training, to scheduling, to support.  One of my previous employers had a great phrase: Telephone, tell-a-driver; no difference. So what message are your drivers communicating?

The next few years ought ‘a be pretty interesting times. Guess I’ll ride a long for a few more.